From Trash to Treasure

March 23, 2023, Department, by Joe Ignatius, PLA, ASLA

0423 we are parks recreation gude landfill 410

For an enhanced digital experience, read this story in the ezine.

As the oldest formal landfill managed in Montgomery County, Maryland, Gude Landfill is prime for a new life. The site is bound by a unique mix of single-family residential, industrial and governmental uses to the west and by the 1,800-acre Rock Creek Regional Park to the east.

The 162-acre landfill site contains nearly 5 million tons of waste, dating from 1965 to 1982. After more than 30 years, the site has met requirements to decommission the landfill and transition to recreational uses. Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection (MCDEP) has been managing the property and is overseeing the process of converting the dump into a future park, a first for the agency. MCDEP has actively engaged with a community advisory committee, called the Gude Landfill Concerned Citizens (GLCC), which has been meeting for more than 15 years and has held more than 50 meetings to achieve their goal of creating a large community park.

Although the site is not open to the public, the county currently allows limited use. The landfill is a favorite location for bird watchers and low-aircraft aviators who use a small asphalt landing strip to fly drones and small model airplanes.

The Vision

Floura Teeter, a Baltimore-based landscape architecture firm, joined the project team in 2018 with engineering firm EA Engineering, Science and Technology. The original scope of work was to develop a master plan, beginning with the community’s vision for the site as a passive recreation and community-use park while also balancing the sensitive nature of the site as a regional birding habitat. The design team, community and county representatives established several project goals, such as:

  • Maintain integrity of the landfill and allow for continued monitoring during the post-closure period.
  • Include safe recreation uses compatible with the landfill.
  • Explore the feasibility for connections to adjacent parks/paths.
  • Include signage or art to celebrate the new ecology.
  • Establish a naturalistic meadow environment and encourage the interaction of native bird species with the new flora.

Using the app iBird, community members have documented bird sightings and georeferenced their location, time of year and quantity across the site and adjacent parklands. The design team reviewed the data within the past two years to evaluate the species using the site as a stopover for food or shelter. The data played a crucial role in plant species selection and programming for the park.

Being an artificial mountain, the site is a strategic viewing point, providing excellent vistas overlooking the expanse of the existing landfill and future park with the City of Rockville skyline in the distance. It is a sublime experience in a dense suburban environment. A viewing area at the highpoint of the site is designed as an educational way station, featuring a weather monitoring station. In addition, the design includes oversized custom recliners to take in the sights and relax after a long assent.

The community desired several active recreational uses, such as a nine-hole disc golf course and a natural playground, including tunnels, wood steppers and butterfly houses. The features had to meet the sensitive criteria of the shallow soil profile of the landfill cap system. In most locations, there will only be 24 inches of soil above the geotextile layers of the newly capped landfill. Spread footer details were coordinated closely with civil and structural engineers to ensure the stability of all features without compromising the landfill cap system.

The park being near the Derwood residential community, there also was a desire to include a dog park for both large and small dogs. This and other park features are connected by a five-mile trail network traversing the expanse of the property and connecting to surrounding trail networks. These trails will allow residents to explore the vast new landscape and its gently sloping contours. Floura Teeter developed a wayfinding and educational signage package to first assist park users in navigating the site, but also to showcase the history and evolution of the site from repository of waste to a restored meadow ecology. An environmental education topic is showcased at each of the four way stations located along the primary trail network. A series of trail-side educational posts give visitors an opportunity to learn about the native plant species selected and the avian species they support. The highlight of the trail system culminates in an art installation that is striking in form and function. It shows a large flock of bright red birds flying south, but it also allows one to reflect on the many birds that come from near and far, traveling across the continent in search of food, shelter and warmth. For future consideration, the master plan designated an area of the site for a solar array along a south-facing slope.

Plant Selection

Due to the unique soil profile requirements and site management needs, the design team selectively evaluated proposed plant species. Establishment of a dense meadow was decided as the most appropriate planting approach. They were chosen for their low-maintenance qualities, the high value of nutrients they provide for native birds and insects, the availability of a wide variety of species, and multi-seasonal interest. Woody trees and shrubs are only allowed off the landfill cap where mature existing trees are preserved, and supplemental plantings along the park perimeter provide a transitional landscape to the Rock Creek Regional Park. Finally, the design package includes an invasive species management plan and meadow establishment plan for long-term success of the new meadow habitat.

Connecting the Community

Working with MCDEP and the GLCC, Floura Teeter coordinated a design for new buffer plantings and a connector trail between the Derwood residential community and the existing trail network leading to the future passive-use park. Invasive species and overgrown vegetation in poor health were removed and new trees and shrubs native to Maryland were planted. Thanks to close consultation with the community, parks department, utility company and the Gude Landfill project team, a beautiful transitional landscape now welcomes trail users.

The Future

Recognition of this project’s significance has been given through design awards from both the Potomac and Maryland Chapters of the American Society of Landscape Architects. Construction of the engineered landfill cap and subsequent passive-use park are underway as of January 2023, signifying a transformation from a mountain of trash to, soon, Rockville’s treasure.

Joe Ignatius, PLA, ASLA, is Associate at Floura Teeter Landscape Architects.